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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 98 (March 18, 2010)
*** INTER-KOREAN RELATIONS

South Korean Buddhists Postpone Planned Visit to North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's largest Buddhist sect said on March 11 that it had postponed a visit by its delegation to North Korea at the request of its counterpart in the socialist country.

   Representatives from the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the Buddhist Federation of (North) Korea were schedueld to meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesong on March 12 to discuss the possible organization of a mass rally of Buddhists from the divided countries in the North.

   "The Buddhist Federation of Korea suddenly conveyed a message that it is difficult to hold the planned meeting," an official at the Jogye Order said. "We will set a new date and push for a visit to the North."

   Seoul's Unification Ministry had given the go-ahead to the Jogye Order's request for a trip to the North, designed to promote exchange between Buddhists in the two Koreas. After being notified of the North's request, the ministry said it had shelved related administrative procedures.

   The Jogye Order has been seeking re-entry into the communist country after its chief, Rev. Jaseung, met with North Korean Buddhist leaders in January in Pyongyang for talks on strengthening ties.

   The South Korean group had funded the restoration of a prominent Buddhist temple at Mt. Kumgang on the North's east coast for several years. The Shingye temple became off-limits to South Koreans after the fatal shooting death of a South Korean tourist at the mountain resort in 2008.

   The tours to Mt. Kumgang remain suspended with the South demanding the North allow a joint on-site investigation into the shooting by a North Korean guard. The North says its own probe following the incident was sufficient.

   The Jogye Order has been pushing for a journey of about 4,000 of its members to Mt. Kumgang for a mass religious rally with North Korean Buddhists, according to its officials.

   North Korea is considered one of the worst countries in terms of religious freedom. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said last year North Korea's religious institutions are "tightly controlled and employed primarily to gain the government foreign assistance from overseas religious groups and non-governmental organizations."

   The plan for religious exchange comes amid frayed inter-Korean ties. Inter-Korean dialogue faded quickly in 2008 after South Korean President Lee Myung bak took office in February with a pledge to raise the issue of the North's nuclear ambitions more prominently in inter-Korean exchanges than his liberal predecessors did.

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Figures Show Impact of Rocket Launch on Inter-Korean Exchanges

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Inter-Korean economic cooperation and social exchanges have been almost entirely cut off since North Korea test-fired a long range missile in spring last year, government figures showed on March 13.

   An official from the Ministry of Unification said no new economic ventures have been started with the exception of business operations taking place at the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the two Koreas
"The last new venture was approved on March 12 of last year," he said.

   Before the April rocket launch took place, the ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean policy, approved 10 deals in 2005, four in 2006, six in 2007 and nine in 2008.

   There were a few companies that wanted to start new business tie-ups after the test, but they opted not to follow up after they were informed that Seoul would not approve new deals, the official said.

   South Korea's conservative Lee Myung bak administration, which was inaugurated in early 2008, has maintained a tough stance on North Korea, demanding a resolution to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions before cross-border cooperation can be expanded. It has allowed humanitarian aid to be shipped to the North by non-government groups, but drastically cut direct state aid.

   The Kaesong industrial park, however, has continued to grow. The ministry official said Seoul approved 22 new business startups in Kaesong last year. The complex is considered the crowning achievement of inter-Korean cooperative ventures that permit South Korean companies to make products using North Korean labor.

   The official also said that all social and cultural exchanges have stopped under the Lee administration. "The last social exchange was approved on Jan. 8, 2008," he said.

   In 2005, 47 cross-border programs were approved, with 26 and 19 taking place in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Only three social and cultural exchange programs took place in early 2008.

  (END)